The US wants to seize “The Wolf of Wall Street” royalties in a huge Malaysian corruption case

Maybe not the best role model?
Maybe not the best role model?
Image: Reuters/Paul Hackett
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The American government has filed lawsuits to seize over $1 billion in assets that it says were looted from 1MDB, a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund at the center of a massive corruption probe that has now reached the inner circle of Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak.

The assets sought by the US Department of Justice read like a list of playthings for billionaires (pdf), including future royalties from the Oscar-nominated film The Wolf of Wall Street, a stake in the record label EMI, a Van Gogh, a Monet, the Park Lane hotel in New York, and an assortment of luxury homes in Beverly Hills, New York, and London.

The complaint named five individuals, including Riza Aziz, the stepson of Malaysia’s prime minister and the financier behind The Wolf of Wall Street through his company Red Granite Pictures, and Low Taek Jho, a longtime friend of Riza’s and a confidant of the prime minister’s family.

Najib, who approved the fund’s major transactions, was not named in the suits. But an unnamed source “with direct knowledge of the investigation” told the Wall Street Journal that an individual labeled in the complaint as “Malaysian official 1” and referred to 32 times in the filing (pdf) is Najib.

The investigation was conducted by a US Justice Department unit called the Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative, which includes lawyers, FBI, and Homeland Security agents. Loretta Lynch, the US attorney general, said at a press conference today (July 20) that the civil complaint marked the kleptocracy unit’s single biggest action since it was founded in 2010.

The case should “make clear to corrupt officials around the world that we will be relentless in our efforts to deny them the proceeds of their crimes,” Lynch said.

“Malaysian official 1” is described as “a high-ranking official in the Malaysian government who also held a position of authority in 1MDB.” Asked if the unnamed official was, in fact, Najib, Lynch refused to answer directly, saying, “We essentially allege what we need to allege to obtain the legal process we need to obtain. We don’t go beyond that.”

Lynch said there was no agreement in place with the Malaysian government not to name Najib in the suit. “Malaysia does continue to be an ally of ours, particularly in counter-terrorism efforts,” she said.

The suspicious movement of 1MDB funds has triggered investigations in Switzerland, Singapore, and Hong Kong since 2015. In April, a Malaysian parliamentary committee found $4.2 billion in unauthorized transactions at the fund.

Riza, Low, and Najib have consistently denied wrongdoing.